No Propaganda in the Classroom

My first year of teaching, I had no idea what a standard was. I was too busy trying to navigate an inner city classroom with 30 students who I could barely get to sit down.

As a member of Teach for America, I had only received 6 weeks or so of training prior to setting foot in the classroom. (I had been an English major, preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs. Then I saw a sign advertising TFA , and decided I wanted to help solve the problems that I had been thinking and writing about in my honor’s thesis.)

Many have criticized TFA for placing poorly prepared teachers into the most challenging environments and in a way they are right. They did. But no teacher preparation, and certainly not a national set of standards, would have been an adequate replacement for my deep desire to succeed and to help my students whom society had failed.

You see standards are just a set of learning goals. At the end of the day, week, year…what do the students need to be able to know and do. The rest is up to the teacher. Breaking the skills and knowledge into steps, formulating units and lessons, and choosing materials and tools to help the students achieve understanding. The standards are the end goal, but teaching happens on the journey there.

So you see, when I first heard about Common Core I got excited by the rhetoric. What teacher doesn’t like the buzz words they smartly attached to these standards such as “rigorous” and “evidence-based”? I loved the idea that all schools would be held to the same standard no matter where you lived in the country. It sounded so good that it nearly made me forget that a standard was …well, just a standard.  And it turns out that the designers exaggerated their powerhouse design.

http://www.aei.org/publication/common-cores-five-big-half-truths/

Despite what the ads claimed, standards can’t do what they claim that they can do. Only quality teaching can lead to better educational equity and more well-prepared students. I taught 7th grade English for a year, using the Common Core Standards before I went on maternity leave. That year it was annoying, because I had to learn to navigate new standards that were quite wordy, and frankly, with 3 children of my own and one on the way, time was limited to say the least.

Many people do not know that teachers have to submit online lesson plans every week and each lesson must be tied to a standard. Lesson planning software has come a long way, so teachers now just have to click on the applicable standards for each lesson. Sounds easy, but I taught Reading and Language Arts and an advanced class as well. So I was clicking 3-5 standards for 4 lessons a day. Then I had to compose more specific learning objectives that were based on the standard for each individual lesson.

Once I finished all of that, then I could start gathering materials for the lessons whether it be finding articles, video clips or websites, or creating my own worksheets, projects, homework assignments etc. (And I won’t even mention the amount of time spent grading quizzes, tests, homework, journals, and essays.) The point is that the standards are really not that big of a deal. Even the shift from a focus on novels to more informational text didn’t bother me, because I had been teaching tons of informational text for years. Plus in my classroom, I had the flexibility to address the standards my own way despite what the curriculum map said.

For instance, the NJ ASK (the old standardized test being replaced by the PARCC) required a persuasive writing piece. So I designed an invention unit where my students learned and analyzed advertising techniques then applied them to market their own inventions. My students had a blast creating prototypes or actual inventions in some cases. They created posters, videos, and put on presentations in addition to writing a persuasive essay. It covered reading, writing, speaking, listening, and media literacy standards both on the old NJ standards and the new Common Core. I taught that unit for 8 years. Ask any student who was in my class during that time, and I guarantee you that they remember their invention. It was a month of fun….rigorous fun.

So before all of these buzz words, acronyms “STEM”, and drastic standard changes, I was already doing it. And, I am sure that I was not the only one.

The problem came when the new standards became a political soapbox and a money-making scheme for testing and tech companies.

The new test was online, so districts needed to purchase costly technology and improve their bandwith and connectivity. Cha-ching!

The new test focused on new standards and new ways to solve math problems and ask questions. So, schools would need to purchase new “Common Core Aligned” textbooks.  Cha-ching!

The new test required typing and computer skills. So, schools and parents need to buy more computer-based games and programs. Cha-ching!

Then the Common Core became inextricable from the curriculum. Heck, even teachers were to be evaluated based on the scores their students received. Finally teachers would be held accountable for ensuring that their kids learn and score well. (This one is funny, because not every teacher teaches reading and math or teaches in the tested grades.)

Then the propaganda got heated. Common Core was either the nation’s savior or our president’s attempt to socialize the nation. Just Google Common Core ads and see how far the propaganda has gone on both sides. But love them or hate them, the Common Core Standards really aren’t the biggest problem.

The whole debate has lost sight of the children as they are moved like pawns in a political and money-grubbing game. I am tired of seeing propaganda. Tired of stupid memes. Tired of seeing happy kids leaning over computers

http://theweek.com/article/index/252851/forget-cursive-teach-kids-how-to-code

I just want our kids to be left out of it and in the hands of good, caring teachers, who feel valued for the essential and hard work that they do.

IMG_2444  IMG_2442

10 Things My Father Taught Me About Teaching

This is my dad.

dad swing

The picture shows how I choose to remember him most…smiling. That smile lit up the lives of thousands of children that passed through his gym over the nearly 40 years that he taught physical education and coached many teams. At his wake, the room overflowed with people of all ages. Many I knew, but so many I had never met or even heard about, yet my father’s death moved every single one of them to tears.

Here is just some of what I learned from him about being a teacher.

1. You can’t fool kids. If you don’t care or don’t like them, they will know right away.

2. There’s nothing wrong with getting down on the floor to play a game of duck, duck goose with a bunch of kindergarteners. (Not even if you are a 65 year old, 6 foot 3 inch tall black man.)

3. Not everyone is going to work as hard or care as much as you do. But you shouldn’t let that slow you down.

4. Murphy’s always working, so you might as well not sweat the small stuff.

*Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

5. Always have fun, but set the bar of expectations high.

6. A custodian is not any less of a person than a principal. Treat everyone with respect.

7. Have zero tolerance for bullying or any sort of put downs in your classroom.

8. Never be afraid to speak your mind at faculty meetings, board meetings, union meetings, or anywhere.

9. If you have a good idea, work hard to make it a reality no matter who or what stands in your way.

10. Don’t be in a hurry to retire.

When my dad kept teaching past retirement age, colleagues constantly asked him when he was going to retire. He used to hate that. He loved his job. Once he retired, he said no one would call him Mr. Washington anymore, he would just be Mike.

Well, there he was wrong. He never was just Mike, or “just” anything….and he never will be.

Teaching is not a job that ends at the end of the day or at the end of the school year. It is a job that keeps working long after the teacher is gone and the students have moved on and grown up.